Do You Like Açorda? João Maria Gusmão + Pedro Paiva and Alexandre Estrela

by Marco Bene


When doubts about your vacuum cleaner arise, one should always rely on the expertise of those who know about this complex subject. As such, here is a thorough review of one of the most esteemed dust fighters. The Bosch VAC090A 9-Gallon Dust Extractor with Automatic Filter Clean. Considered one of the best vacuum cleaners in the market, is a must in every vacuum cleaner shopping list. (…) Nonetheless, on the down side, the auto clean feature starts automatically every time the vacuum cleaner is turned ON and OFF. Thus, waiting for the Bosch to finish cleaning itself when it is not needed, not wished for and redundant. All in all, given its features and the way it works, the problem with the self-cleaning seems to be a minor hitch compared to the talent of dust suction and uninterrupted silence of this vacuum expert. Needless to say, it works well, if used well.
–Marco Bene, found somewhere on the Internet


I had moved to Lisbon to relax and do nothing, but found myself sucked into an endless stream of dinner parties. The Portuguese give extreme importance to meals; following the legacy of the ancient Greek symposium, all important conversations gravitate around large portions of ameijoas à bulhão pato, rojões à minhota, morcela da régua, and açorda. That last is basically a dough made out of soaked cooked bread where you mix in whatever you want.

At one of these banquets I sat next to the artists João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva. And rather than saying I was a lazy bastard, I mentioned that I was freelancing, writing vacuum cleaner reviews on the Internet. They showed some interest and asked me to read one of these “literary miniatures.”

I guess it was my expertise in describing the Bosch VAC090A 9-Gallon Dust Extractor with Automatic Filter Clean that got me working on Lua Cão.

Lua Cão, says the brochure, is a jam-session exhibition testing the intersection of experimental film and video via the extensive bodies of work of Alexandre Estrela and the abovementioned Gusmão and Paiva. The show’s host is the legendary Natxo Checa, a badass producer-ZDB curator and compulsive paraphernalia collector, who has travelled with the three artists around the globe producing and installing artwork.

When I met Gusmão and Paiva, ZDB was looking for someone to staff the exhibition space Wednesday to Saturday. I became the Lua Cão projectionist, the guy who switches the machines ON and OFF in the dark, explains the work to visitors, and even sells it to collectors.

Lua Cão is a four-hour moving-image experiment with multiple films and videos arranged in five constellations. Every fifteen minutes the exhibition changes, following a technical script in order to “avoid entropy” (also from the brochure). It is conceptually structured around two long featured pieces: Estrela’s Viagem ao Meio (Travel to the Middle, 2010), a two-hour concrete film/video experiment made inside a volcano, and Gusmão and Paiva’s Papagaio (2014), a forty-minute voodoo film.

A tall twenty meter long bench directs the observer’s view point for the whole experience of the exhibition, creating the atmosphere of a sort of Plato’s cave filled with shadows, reflections, human and inhuman entities, engrams and anagrams, the sounds of the sibyl and the materiality of things future, past and present.

It is an ambitious show, if you take into account the number of works (twenty projections) and the lack of an automated system to change, rewind, play, and switch OFF and ON, ON and OFF the film and video appliances. There’s a lot of running around involved.

I usually arrive thirty minutes before opening to the public.

I enter and turn the lights ON, revealing two photo prints by Estrela, entitled Moondog (Lua Cão), 2013, hanging on the left wall. Lending its name to the exhibition as a whole, it is a diptych displaying human and animal eyes afflicted with cataracts. The white pupils look like moonscapes. “Moondog” is a rare high-latitude visual phenomenon in which the moonlight is refracted, causing the illusion of seeing three moons.

Next to the photos is Three Suns (2009), a 16mm film shot by Gusmão and Paiva, a triple exposure of the sun as seen from an oceanic gorge in Portugal, Boca do Inferno.

I look at the projection and blink 3 times at Three Suns. 3 x 3 = 9. How many suns are there between the ones I see and the ones I remember seeing?

Beyond this point all is dark. Scattered on the floor or suspended, a multiple array of digital and analog projectors seem abandoned, like obsolete technology waiting to be revived.

I move upstairs to the mezzanine to turn the pieces there ON.

The distinctive clicking sound starts. The painted screen on the brick wall lights up and a parrot soars in super-slow motion; its wings look like chrome metal blades. I switch ON a second projector and see a giant turtle. At the end of the space, a metal sundial bends a video projection to the presence of its gnomon; the image of the sun scans an antithetical shadow of the sundial.

I feel that these pieces are essays on time’s expansion and contraction. As if film reveals an elastic time, and video crystallizes it as matter.

The next piece to turn ON is Gusmão and Paiva’s Heat Ray (2010). Several sun reflections are captured on a canvas that was set outdoors, and converge into a single overexposed light ray in the middle. The film was shot on the terrace of ZDB, and the mirror handlers are the filmmakers themselves and the art crowd that surrounds ZDB and Natxo Checa.

Finally I plug in Estrela’s Flauta (Flute, 2010), a small video installation on a double wood screen. The projected image of a cane vibrates. A bass hum erupts from a dilating existing hole on both the screen and image, some sort of musical wind bursts out of the projection.

Time to move downstairs to load Viagem ao Meio, Estrela’s special way of burdening the projectionist. I have to install the 16mm film in near darkness, and make sure it plays exactly at the same time as its digital counterpart.

I turn the digital projector ON, wait until the image of the entrance of a tunnel appears, then run toward the 16mm projector and start it, superimposing the digital and analog images.

In the digital projection, Estrela, camera in hand, records the entire twelve hundred meters of a human-made tunnel that traverses the wall of the volcanic crater of Lagoa das Sete Cidades in the Azores. It’s dark, and the only thing one sees, besides the entrance, is the light at the end of the tunnel, a white point that moves as Estrela walks.

The counterpart of the digital projection is a six-hundred-meter-long 16mm film that Estrela originally carried to the center of the tunnel and unrolled toward the entrance. The volcano thus became a giant camera, and the tunnel’s entrance a pinhole that invited the sunlight in. The unexposed film negative was printed with the trace of the light progression through the tunnel, from scratched black, to yellowish, to immaculate white.

The sound of the artwork is the racket of a broken sewer pump that Estrela recorded inside. It’s like the howling of a strange animal. Slowly, Viagem ao Meio starts getting brighter and brighter, the sound more and more disturbing, the white dot at the end of the tunnel closer and closer.

The relation between the two parts of Viagem ao Meio is fascinating. The physical film produces a material translation of the space and light vortex inside the tunnel, like a thermal experience thorough the volcano. The digital image acts as a vanishing point, an escape route that places the observer inside the subjective camera shot. They complement each other and neither can evolve without its counterpart. When the 16mm reel ends we are at the center of the crater’s wall. Time to pause the digital video and flip the 16mm film reel, as it has to be played in reverse, first from darkness into light, and then from light to darkness. Ironically, darkness is what makes the exhibition blaze with light.

When you reach the end of the tunnel, the video opens up to the Atlantic coast of the Azores and the film is in the position where it started. I am endlessly expecting the moment in which the white dot becomes an exit to the outside. A sort of ecstatic revelation happens here; after two painful hours of geological wandering in the underworld, the possibility of a horizon is blissful.

While the speleological journey in ON, I load another work in the show, Gusmão and Paiva’s Projector (camera test), 2016. This film shows a 16mm projector projecting a white strip of film. The shutter of the projector in the image is slowed down to the point where you can see the black flicker of the twenty-four frames per second, and thus it refers to itself projecting. The shutter moves slowly, the white image appears and then is gone, the lens sparkles. You get the feeling that this is about light speed, establishing a common ground for both artworks, and touching upon what I overheard a German visitor call Verfremdungseffekt. The relation of Viagem ao Meio and Projector (camera test) stages a complex metaphor on the conditions of visibility; light travels both in waves and straight lines, a black projection cone still creates some sort of image, the haunting image of its own disappearance.

I look at my watch. Time to change the arrangement.

I turn both projectors OFF; the howling stops. I turn ON Falling Trees (2014), a film by Gusmão and Paiva shot in the heart of a tropical forest. As through a mist, some locals are cutting down a sublime tree to harvest lumber. I can see the burning diesel puffing out from the chainsaw motor. At one point, sawdust falls in front of the lens like snow. Eventually the massive tree falls gently to the ground, twisting the idea of gravity, crashing motionless against the green floor. Thus is the primordial forest usurped at humanity’s discretion, log after log, slowly, in a premeditated profanation of nature.

I play Falling Trees at the same time as Estrela’s Longing for Darkness (2014). Thanks to the latter, the sound of a brass instrument performed by another of ZDB’s associates, the cult night-owl jazz player Sei Miguel, fills the space with a sort of mythological anthem. A zenithal shot of a landscape model from the Neolithic monument of Carnac appears on a table-like screen on the floor.

Falling Trees, now at its end shot, shows a wide angle perspective of what is going on in the clearing, the sawyers keep on milling, Sei Miguel’s trumpet sound seems to be warning us about the Anthropocene on view in Falling Trees. At its last shot, the lumberjack’s female helper rests sexily in a huge banana leaf laid onto the floor, phallic boulders surrounding her.

The rows of menhirs in Longing for Darkness end where the sea begins. I remember a sentence by John Cage: “What is the nature of art when it reaches the sea?”

I load Papagaio’s film reel onto the main Xenon projector. This is Gusmão and Paiva’s forty-three-minute quasi-anthropological documentary about a trance ritual on the island of São Tomé.

I turn it ON.

There is a silent countdown. Then a number of people are dancing around a bonfire carrying out a sort of voodoo ritual. Bodies twitch in a frenzy as they pass into trance. The performers are being reborn, possessed by otherworldly powers.

I continue turning projectors ON and OFF. I feel I’m also partaking in a ceremony. The performers plead the dead for something unrevealed, begging for “a mode of truth, not of truth coherent and central, but angular and splintered.”[1] At first, I thought the film was documenting the Other. But otherness becomes the subjective gaze when Gusmão and Paiva ask the zombie dancers to hold the camera. The dead are now in charge. The objective camera point of view vanishes when both, observer and observed share the eerie perspective of the dead, recording images from after finitude.

The silence of the film conflicts with the frantic movements of the possessed dancers.

The visitors and I, collectively, behold the uncanny atmosphere of a space that seems timeless. It’s as if the viewer is being bewitched by a phantasmagoria.

I now move to turn ON Estrela’s video L’Ours (2003-2013). A man appears mirrored on a screen, holding a camera that covers his face, while moving back and forth. He repeats perpetually (in French) Jean-Luc Godard’s sentence “You will become the man, who saw the man who saw the man who saw the bear.” Suddenly, a transient image of a bear appears. Its nose and black eyes fit over a triangle composed of three black dots painted on the wall. Godard’s dictum blends with Papagaio’s dismissal of conventions, humans-becoming-animal.

I guess there’s something about the sum of images—the dark space that hosts the exhibition and the repetitive sound of projectors moving forward—that bewilders. It blurs the line separating fiction and reality. As in Borges, it speculates along a science of exceptions.

At the end of my shift I turn OFF every projection, one by one. The mechanical sound of the analog machinery slowly fades out.

I turn the main power OFF. I suppose there must be an ocular image for blindness.

[1] De Quincey, Writings, XI, 68.


at Galeria Zé dos Bois, Lisbon
until 15 July 2017


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